Documentarians, Director Emanuele Mengotti, and Director of Photography, Marco Tomaselli share with us insight into their latest film titled "West of Babylonia" It details the lives of the citizens of Slab City, a community who sections themselves off into their own society. Working with the LomoKino and Petzval Art Lens on the film, the two were able to talk to us about their experience working with this unique community and what it's like to be documentarians.
How'd you come up with the idea to document these people in that environment?
Emanuele: I always love to explore the South West of US and find that little places that are unique, were you can still find the feeling of the old West. Last year I decided to spend a night in Slab City and since the beginning it was clear to me that I had to come back and tell the story of this community from my point of view. I believe that as European we do have a different view of the US, to us everything is more romantic and more exciting.
We grew up watching American movies, being in America is like living in a real movie. Our sensibility is more powerful here because those images already belong to our imagination. Spending a night there, truly connected me with the people, their story and their legacy. I felt welcomed there, I felt at home. Unfortunately many people they don't feel comfortable to discover this magical place, so I decided to bring a little glimpse of this place even to who will never have the chance to come here.
What made you interested in becoming documentarians?
Emanuele: Until "West of Babylonia", I was more focus on the fictional side of filmmaking, this work was my first experience as a documentarian and I find it very changeling and beautiful. I was lucky enough to work with the director of photography Marco Tomaselli a seasoned DP that shared with me his knowledge and helped me to shape this project. Working on this project made me discover a completely different language, an exciting because you will never know what a day will give to you. You need to learn to plan, but at the sometimes you need to be ready to improvise and let your instinct to guide you.
What about documenting real life stories do you find so important to share?
Emanuele: Documenting real-life stories could be very changeling, you need to be ready to discover that moment of poetry and magic that happen on the daily basis in the real life of your subjects. Nowadays we are too much distracted by too many things, that we don't actually pay attention to what is happening around us. There are poetry and magic in every moment and everywhere, we just need to be more aware of it and be ready to find it. As a director, it is crucial to guide the look of the audience to those moments, that otherwise they will be lost forever.
What was it like being with people who are disconnected from contemporary society?
Emanuele: Who lives in Slab City it is not disconnected from contemporary society. The Slabbers are well aware of what is going on in “our” society or as they call the world outside Slab City: Babylonia, that's why they decided to create their own society, where they feel comfortable and where everyone can express themselves the way they want. A very powerful lesson that we learned during our work was taught us by a kid that we met and we spend the time to talk to him and his mom.
He clearly explained to us the problems that this community is facing, especially the politically one related to the near city of Niland. This stroke us and we were curious to know what his mother was thinking about him, being so young and be so aware of those problems. The mother was very clear about this and she told us, that even if those problems they shouldn't worrying him since he is still a kid, but he need to know what it is going on because one day he will have to face those problems.
How'd you like using the Petzval and LomoKino?
Marco: Besides few general guidelines, director Emanuele Mengotti, gave me complete freedom of expressing what aesthetically I was thinking was best for this project. I was determinate right away to adopt a imagine that will underline the natural environment where this community is based: isolation, sand, wind, dust and heat. With this idea in mind I wanted to involve Lomography into this project, I knew that some of their products would enrich the look I was researching.
After testing the 58mm Petzval I realized the potential of this specialty lens. Documentaries are never planned, so I joined this adventure without really knowing in what moment would be best to shoot with this lens. Later on, during the celebration of the Slab City Prom, I felt that the atmosphere was perfect for the Petzval: people from every cross of life, living in this off-grind community, getting together to celebrate the King and Queen of Slab City, it was such a dreaming moment that I wanted to replicate on video. The whole scene was shot with the 58mm Petzval and its beautiful “swirly” bokeh. I’m very happy about the results.
Due to my passion for film photography I also wanted to include in the documentary some series of quick-sequence of portraits shot with a 35mm Canon AE-1 from 1975. The Lomography color-negative 100asa gave back great warm tones that I was pleased to see once developed. The developing process was done by myself with the intention of be rough in order to have all the imperfection I was looking for the style of this documentary.
What challenges do you face shooting a documentary? How does that process of filmmaking compare to other experiences you've had in filmmaking?
Marco:“The desert is always try to kill you. Poisonous vegetation, wild animals, scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes…everything is try to kill you” this is how a Slabber, local of Slab City, was describing the place we were. Other than that, the 120* fahrenheit wave that hit this piece of SoCal after March, no running water or the absence of electricity were definitely a big challenge during our experience of living inside of Slab City for 10 shooting days. I shot “West Of Babylon” with a RED EpicW 8K Helium sensor, not the ideal camera for such a run-and-gun project, but it was the best option for expressing the picture I had in mind. The downside of a cinema camera like this is the low length of the battery life. The camp where we slept was provided us electricity thru solar panels only on certain hours of the day, making the management of the power situation energy consuming.
Why do you thinking documentary filmmaking is important in the digital age when we're just constantly documenting our daily lives publicly?
Marco: Shooting a documentary needs a very different approach compare to shooting any other kind of content. We wanted to capture the true soul of Slab City and most important, the locals are free spirits, you cannot tell them to pose for you. You’re interacting with real people in their environment, you need to feel a real interest in listening their stories, discover their realities, simply see the world thru their eyes. This is the most important task a documentaries needs to have. The only thing we had to do was entering in the community with an open mind, breaking all the stereotypes you could have in base of the appearance, and treating people with respect. This allowed us to truly getting into people we met.
What can we see from you in the future?
Emanuele: I'm currently working on the other project called The Plague Doctor, it is a feature film and I will film in my hometown Venice. The Plague Doctor is an indie horror movie inspired by the history and legends of the Venetian lagoon. At the same time working on West of Babylonia definitely, wake up my interest for the documentary genre. I'm becoming more and more interested in exploring this genre, finding new stories and the new way to tell them. It is all about storytelling and find the right moment and capture it in your frame.
West of Babylonia is now in postproduction, the award-winning editor Federico Conforti is editing the footage. The film is currently looking for a distribution.